A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Gender fluid

Con Opera La Calisto-8938

Ashlee Woodgate (Calisto) and Allen Qi (Jupiter)

Elsie Egerton-Till, the director of the Conservatorium Opera School’s latest production, is just entering into the spirit of things with her smart and surprising take on Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto. After all, the story already has an arch-male, Jupiter, disguising himself as Diana in order to seduce Calisto. Why not mix things up even more? Why not have men dressed in chiffon as part of the bride’s party, and women in suits with the men chorus?

The result is by turns confusing, entertaining and very much of its time. By which I mean now. We can’t know whether seventeenth-century Venetians would have had such a playful and lusty approach to story-telling — although I reckon it’s likely they would — but this production probably tells us as much about Sydney in 2017 as it does about Venice in  1651. Jupiter swaggers like a media mogul’s son. Pan huffs and blows like a Rhodes scholar on a beer binge. Juno struts and tutts like a nasty woman. We recognise these characters with wry laughter.

What is frustrating about this production is that, having crashed through the binary barrier, it didn’t then move on into what, for me, is the crux of La Calisto, that elision between love and  attraction and lust, regardless of gender or sexuality. Or, put it another way, the movement from a classical stereotype into something more nuanced, or perhaps more human. Some of the climactic moments musically are when we see, for instance, Jupiter realising he is in love with Calisto, or Diana torn by her forbidden desire  for Endymion (mirrored by the Linfea and Satorino subplot). Paradoxically, while Cavalli’s music created a little moment of stillness and insight, the action on stage felt stilted, caught between realism and symbolism. Likewise, in some of the bigger set pieces, the scale of the performances – the gestures, the timing of gags, the facial expressions – did not match affect of the music.

That said, there were some terrific performances from last night’s cast. Allen Qi, as Jupiter, had a fine baritone and a good sense of comedy, while Joshua Oxley, as Pan, combined in-your-face obnoxiousness with a strong and agile tenor voice. Jia Yao Sun, as Diana, sang beautifully but lacked a certain presence. Aimee O’Neill, by contrast, was a force to be reckoned with, dramatically, but did not always manage to control her voice. It is, however clearly a powerful instrument and with great potential. Next stop, Queen of the Night?

Rebecca Hart, in the pants role of Endymion, sang with touching emotion, matching the restrained performance of Jia Yao Sun. Meanwhile, Robert Adam, in the frock role of Linfea, and his would-be lover, impishly played by Sitong Liu, stole the show with their playful negotiations and vocal clarity.

Ashlee Woodgate gave a promising and, at times, genuinely lovely performance in the demanding title role, although her mask slipped, as did her pitch, across the evening.

In the pit, the Early Music Ensemble, directed by Neal Peres Da Costa, toiled away heroically through Cavalli’s long passages of recitative, always sensitive to the needs of the stage, but making a fine sound, rich with the textures of pluck, blow and bow, in the orchestral interludes.

You can catch La Calisto on Thursday 25 May at 11.30am and Saturday 27 May at 2pm in the Music Workshop at Sydney Conservatorium of Music. 


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Unfinished business

Articulation. Timbre. Pace. Pitch. Ornamentation. Tempo. Vibrato. Effect. Affect. There’s so much to think about once you enter the labyrinth of Historically Informed Performance. It sometimes feels like a loss of innocence – gone are the days of just playing, revelling in the line, enjoying the visceral pull of the harmonies, feeling the rhythm dip and dodge between your own internal pulse. Suddenly, every note can betray your ignorance. Suddenly, you know just how much you don’t know. To reach this realisation, then step out on stage and perform with the kind of authority which convinces an audience is the challenge every self-respecting HIPster must overcome.

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Jakob Lehmann conducts the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

The first chord of the second half, bar 1 of the Overture in C Minor, written by a young Franz Schubert, was, for me, the moment when the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra wholeheartedly took on the challenge. The ensemble took a breath, then began, unleashing a C minor chord like a wall of sound. But then, rather than releasing the chord and letting the aftershocks bounce around the hall before moving swiftly on, they micromanaged the decrescendo, controlling its decay in a steady line from loud to soft. Deliberate, defiant, and highly dramatic.

It might seem as if my obsession with this one note is me falling into the same state of analysis paralysis that can catch out the diligent scholar musician. I don’t think, however, it’s quite the same. What caught my ear was not the execution in itself, but the effect. I’ve described what I was hearing, but what I actually felt coming off the stage was a bold and unanimous gesture; an ensemble saying, “Listen to this. This is what we made.” It was wonderful. The orchestra went on to make a powerful case for this early work and the following work, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the Unfinished.

 

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Fiona Campbell (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

In the first half, the orchestra played a different role, that of accompanist and foil to the dazzling charms of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell, singing three Rossini arias. To say she upstaged them is not quite fair. There was plenty to enjoy in the accompaniment too, including the whiny snarl of hand-stopped notes in the natural horns, and the distinctive porp of period bassoons. And there was plenty of dazzle in the ranks notwithstanding some problems with intonation and wrong entries. In the end, however, it was Campbell who, own the stage with an unquenchable joy and a generous helping of sequins, plus some nicely done stage business — full marks for multitasking, Maestro Lehmann and Madama Campbell — and deliciously hammy acting. And then there was the voice, solid, and spanning a generous, warm contralto up to an agile top which crackled and sparked with character. From the mock-tragedy of Cruda Sorte to the open glee of Non piu mesta she charmed and captivated.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra, under the valiant leadership of Richard Gill AO, Rachael Beesley, Nicole van Bruggen and Benjamin Bayl, continue to find their voice. Sadly, Richard Gill was unable to conduct the Sydney performance — I hope he feels better soon — but his last minute replacement, guest concertmaster Jakob Lehmann, did a fabulous job navigating the orchestra through the tricky orchestral recitatives and inspiring a bold and brilliant engagement with Schubert’s Unfinished.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra head to Melbourne for a repeat of this concert on Monday 22 May at 7.30pm in Melbourne Recital Hall. 

HELP! I write reviews firstly because I love the music and secondly to support the artists who work so hard. They don’t get paid nearly enough and I don’t get paid at all most of the time (except in love). So if you enjoyed this review, please feel free to have a rummage around the rest of the website and please consider supporting my latest project, a book on Dartington Summer School of Music, to be published by Unbound in 2018. 

 

 


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Intricate Models

The Natural Order of Things was commissioned from composer James Ledger for the Australian Chamber Orchestra by David and Sandy Libling, in honour David’s father. Simon Libling lived an extraordinary life. He was born to a wealthy family in Krakow in 1912 but, as you can imagine, they didn’t stay that way. When he finally arrived, with his wife and child, in Melbourne in 1960, Libling had lived through halfBlakusCelloMed-e1348130472704 a century of economic and social turmoil. Two wars, the Great Depression, occupation, living under a totalitarian regime… There’s a (necessarily) abridged version of a long and eventful life in the program booklet and, as Ledger says, it reads like a film script. The beauty of Ledger’s five movement work, however, is that he has resisted the temptation to use filmic techniques, emotive musical language or empty drama. This is an intensely thoughtful work, full of considered gestures and deft layering of sound. Sudden, sculpted outbursts dot the musical landscape as if at random, but clearly placed with exacting accuracy by disparate soloists within the ensemble. Designed, but not contrived, organic but not predictable. It’s like turning an intricate model over and over in your hands, discovering it from different angles. This is a fine work which would grace the repertoire of any string orchestra and a beautiful memorial to a life well-lived.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Satu Vanska, brought their habitual virtuosity to this and all the other works on the program. Indeed, the evening was like a collection of intricate models, each work with its own set of fearsome demands. I was thrilled to hear a work by Ruth Crawford Seeger (yes, mother of Peggy Seeger, stepmother of Pete Seeger, wife of Charles Seeger and, most importantly, a composer who music critic Peter Dickinson called ‘a kind of American Webern’). Her Andante for Strings, the second movement of her 1931 String Quartet, is an arresting work, beginning with tense, dissonant smears of sound which build to a brilliant, crystalline cacophony. If that sounds chaotic, let me assure you it’s not: the restraint with which she adds voices — you have to wait till nearly the end for the double bass — is fascinating. The ACO’s performance makes a powerful case for hearing the whole thing.

Another intricate model took the centre stage in the second half : a 1616 Hieronymus and Antonio Amati cello, the latest acquisition of the ACO Instrument Fund. And to show it off, a new arrangement by Jack Symonds of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello, with Tipi Valve as soloist. I don’t know the sonata well, but whatever Symonds and Valve did, it worked brilliantly. The cello line emerged, glowing, from a delicate mass of string textures.

A Vivaldi Concerto bounced off the stage with verve, but the real showpiece was Locatelli’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 3, No. 12After the profundity of what went before this piece comes across as completely nutty: the soloist ricochets off into a series of cadenzas designed to test the limits of the instrument. In fact, it’s more impressive as a pyrotechnical display of digital dexterity than as an artistic statement. However, when you are a virtuoso violinist and you come across a concerto subtitled The Harmonic Labyrinth – Easy to enter, hard to escape, the gauntlet is well and truly thrown, on the floor, waiting for you to pick it up. Satu Vanska, who has been known to perform Paganini Caprices in clubs and on surfing retreats, is completely up for a challenge, and her heroic performance got a well-deserved standing ovation.

All that and Mendelssohn too. A night of many notes. (Not too many, though). Catch one of the last two performances if you can, tonight, Weds 17 May or Friday 19 May, both at City Recital Hall.

If you’ve enjoyed this review, please feel free to rummage further around my blog, or search for other features and reviews I’ve written for the Sydney Morning Herald, or check out my book project, Sanctuarya cultural history of Dartington International Summer School of Music. 


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Brandenbatics

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Photo (and all the rest of them too): Steven Godbee

In 2015 the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra collaborated with contemporary circus ensemble, Circa to create a pasticcio around music of the French Baroque. They’re back for more in 2017, this time with a Spanish-themed pasticcio. Circa’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, has let his imagination loose on the image of the bull ring, taking inspiration from thrumbing rhythms and plangent emotions of Catalan song. ABO’s artistic director, Paul Dyer, has spiced up his ensemble with baroque guitarist Stefano Maiorana from Rome, soprano Natasha Wilson (pictured below) and a medley of old and new arrangements.

18193405_10155227412299254_7813138481784460886_oIt’s a terrific show. The eight performers surprise and delight, impress and astonish with their repertoire of tumbling, rope-climbing, trapeze work, silks and physical theatre. Their balance, strength and grace are constantly amazing and they heighten the audiences engagement with a subtle and often funny overlay of character acting.

We interrupt this review for a quick announcement. Normally at this point I’d be asking you to visit my book project, now crowd-funding at Unbound. However, today, I would rather that you went to www.fairgofairfax.com.au to read about the cuts to editorial staff at the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. I’m still a Herald contributor, in theory, but the arts coverage has shrunk dramatically, so I rarely get a gig these days. Luckily for me, it’s not my bread-and-butter, but it’s devastating and not just to the journalists. In my neck of the woods the whole arts eco-system suffers when intelligent and in depth coverage is curtailed. Without the support of mainstream media, you’re stuck with the likes of me and the rest of the inter webs. Please let Fairfax know if you’re happy, or not, with this situation, and please let artists, arts writers, bloggers and arts companies know too! Thank you. Now read on.

The musicians — just one to a part — are ranged across the back of the stage, with Circa artists in front and singer Natasha Wilson drifting in between the two. The band plays with high energy and patchy brilliance; the improvisations don’t always click and the energy doesn’t always make it past the acrobatics, but when it does, it’s thrilling. Natasha Wilson, making her Australian debut, sings with unfettered clarity and a slightly other-worldly detachment, giving the heart-on-sleeve ballads a tantalising sense of mystery.

18278628_10155227414344254_4469351965812937694_oOn one level it’s good, old-fashioned acrobatics, with a classy backing band and bull-fighting theme. On another level, it’s an attempt to create something bigger – a synthesis of art forms which bounce off each other to create something new. Does it work? Yes and no. As a rip-roaring display of musical and physical virtuosity it is hard to beat: I challenge anyone not to gasp and grin during the performance. As a pasticcio it’s less convincing for me — if there’s a narrative in there, it comes and goes, with human drama upstaged by spectacle. There are so many moments of genius — the red wheelbarrow as bull and bull-fighter’s cape, for example, and the bull-fighters (bulls?) charging across a tabletop — that it feels like overthinking it to get stuck on genre-bashing.

Ultimately, Spanish Baroque has all the makings of a festival piece, a show which could tour anywhere in the world. Fortunately for me, it all started in Sydney.

18238473_10155227413469254_5682927937048582983_oFurther performances – Friday, Saturday 5 and 6 May, Wednesday and Friday 10 and 12 May, all at 7pm, and a 2pm matinee on Saturday 6, all in City Recital Hall, plus two performances on 12 and 14 May at Melbourne Recital Centre and one performance at QPAC in Brisbane on 16 May. 

 


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Trills and pluck

If you buy only one record of harpsichord music in your life — and that’s a decision I would have some sympathy with – buy this sensational album. The 30-year-old Iranian-American Mahan Esfahani has been making waves among connoisseurs for several years. Now he emerges as a superstar whose musicianship, imagination, virtuosity, cultural breadth and charisma far transcends the ivory tower in which the harpsichord has traditionally been placed.
Richard Morrison, The Times

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I heard Esfahani in concert once, at the York Early Music Festival in 2015. His figured bass realization was not up to the complexity of English and French music of the 17th and 18th centuries. I don’t mean he played wrong notes, which can happen to anyone; instead, the voice leading was incorrect and awkward, the chords were wrong, and the polyphonic textures were oversimplified. Let me be clear: this isn’t a judgement based on my personal taste, but a statement of objective mistakes.

Andreas Staier, harpsichord and fortepiano virtuoso, writing for Van

Mahan Esfahani polarises.

The Tehran-born, US-educated, Prague-based harpsichordist is riding a wave of acclaim; Deutsche Gramophon has signed him up and the Gramophone Award nominations are rolling in. He won the BBC Music Magazine’s “Newcomer of the Year” award in 2015, he’s professor of harpsichord at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and is the first person to give a solo harpsichord recital in the BBC Proms. He is a musicologist and a historian. He writes, speaks, plays. And as a good twenty-first century citizen of the world, he tweets, posts and gives great soundbite.

At the same time, he’s on the receiving end of some seriously pointy criticism for his technique, his choice of repertoire, his image, not to mention the interview cited above. Basically, for being who he is.

So who is Mahan Esfahani? Is he more objectionable than your average harpsichordist? And is he any good?

On the evidence of his Sydney debut, yesterday, in the Utzon Room, my answers are a/ don’t know yet, but want to find out, b/ quite possibly yes, because he’s not here just to blend into the continuo background, and c/ bloody oath yes. Note, this judgement is on the strength of being a listener rather than a musicologist or practitioner. I’m not a qualified HIP-ster. But if you were there to hear fabulous music played by a passionate, intelligent and highly-skilled performer, you would not have been disappointed.

He started out with a Bach Toccata and the first impression was of provocative instability. Not a lack of stability: a deliberate, designed instability, gravity off kilter. Some performers show off their technique with breakneck tempi or exaggerated articulation (and Esfahani freely admits he sometimes play fast to impress) but here it was the sense of invention and owlish fascination that carried the work.

By contrast, the Concerto in the Italian Style, BWV 971, was like returning home. As he explained in his lively pre-play chats, it’s a work he’s been playing since he was a child, and it was as if he met every note, every device with fondness and delight, like bumping into an old friend.

Esfahani’s repertoire ranges across periods not generally associated with the harpsichord. The twentieth-century, for example. Henry Cowell’s Set of Four was a new discovery for me. A bilious, swirling Rondo and angular Fugue felt like a different world, sonically, to the Bach, but Esfahani tucked into it with an equally impassioned commitment. And after the Italian Concerto, a mixed media work from Kaija Saariaho, Jardin secret II, played with notions of space and rhythm. I’ve talked about the amplification v. acoustic and the difficulty of losing directional sound before. Here, rather than setting up a fight between the two, Saariaho embraces it, to make an all-enveloping quadrophonic space derived from acoustic, computer-generated and pre-recorded noises. The harpsichord cuts through the sound waves with its tinny bite as soloist and sound artist bounce ideas of each other.

Esfahani brought out the heavy guns, in terms of virtuosity, to finish, playing Rameau’s Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin with punchy flair, followed by an encore of Scarlatti, laced with nutty trills. He’s hard to know, he’s potentially objectionable, but mediocre he ain’t.

Esfahani gives the premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s new Concerto for Harpsichord Ancient Letters with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on May 4, and a concert with Joseph Tawadros in the MSO’s Metropolis New Music Festival on May 6. Looking forward to hearing both!

 


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The New Critic part 2

"Is it any good?"The latest addition to the ABC — Australia’s Banned Critics — has sent me in search of meaning again. First stop, some definitions.

Criticism: the act of giving your opinion or judgment about the good or bad qualities of something or someone

Critical thinking: the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion

Critical review: making judgments as to the truth, merit, relevance, effectiveness, breadth, or contribution to a particular field, as well as its informational structure.

Review: a critical article or report, as in a periodical, on a book, play, recital,or the like; critique; evaluation.

At the risk of being over simplistic, my take away from this is a three step plan.

  1. ask questions
  2. evaluate the evidence
  3. reach a position.

All three are essential.

Without questions, you’re accepting what you are reviewing at face value. Life ain’t that simple. Without evaluating the evidence you’re accepting your perception of what you’re reviewing at face value. Think again. Does the evidence really bear out your perceptions? And without reaching a position, you devalue your observations, and the whole process of review.

This is the framework from which I approach critical thinking in my academic work, my artistic endeavours and my arts reviews. Anything less would be disrespecting and trivialising the work with which I am attempting to engage and, please don’t doubt this, art and art-making is central to my being and it breaks my heart to see it routinely trivialised.

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All this as a prelude to my reaction to the latest banning. The torrid little tea cup of dissent that is Opera Australia’s relationship with the critical press is not, in the general scheme of things, big news. Life goes on. Ben not reviewing the OA Winter Season will probably not make a jot of difference to their ticket sales or their artistic development (although his excellent reporting might…)

However, in Australia, in the arts, in music this should be big news, because Opera Australia is a company which commands the lion’s share of arts funding in the country. Yes, it’s a power thing. When a publicly-funded organisation self-nominates itself as above criticism it is taking itself out of the artistic eco-system. When most artists are surviving on the gentle waft of the ubiquitous oily rag, it’s a slap in the face when a company which has, relatively speaking, generous access to the petrol pump, declares itself above the law. It is abandoning critical thinking, rejecting review, and trivialising the art.

And that, above all, is what makes me mad.

 


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Bach to basics

Before reading this post, please take a few minutes to go and book tickets to one of the remaining four performances if there’s any way you can get there. You won’t regret it.

Done? Now read on.

Bach has a central place in the repertoire of violin players. You cut your teeth on the A minor concerto. Playing the Bach Double with your teacher for the first time blows your mind. You grow up with the Solo Partitas. So when you hear the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing Bach Violin Concertos you can expect the music to be in their bones, the rhythms in their blood, the slow movements like one great sigh, from the heart. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for how good this concert would be.

If ever a gig illustrated a killer strategy for making classical music sell, this one did. The strategy? It’s simple: be bloody good. You don’t need gimmicks when you play this well. You don’t even overt scholarship or extreme tempi or bells and whistles. You just do what you do. If you want details, there’s a formal review from me in the Sydney Morning Herald, but don’t go looking for incisive analysis because it’s a shameless gush, to be honest.

Not all performances can be this good. In fact, not all performances should be this good. Music-making doesn’t have to be a competitive event, and it certainly doesn’t have to be perfect. Every so often, however, it’s a treat to bask in the sheer bloody-goodness of JSB with ACO.

Further performances are on April 9 at 2pm, April 11 at 8pm and April 12 at 7pm, in Brisbane’s QPAC on April 10. Do go if you can. If not, It’s being livestreamed on ABC Classic FM at 2pm today, April 9, and then on demand at the ABC Classic FM website.

I promise I’ll sharpen my tongue next time…